Where’s the money going?

When it comes to Chico’s public-art funding, confusion reigns

Decorative metal railings line the bridges as part of the Manzanita Avenue Corridor Reconstruction Project. The city’s arts project coordinator, Mary Gardner (inset), has been vague as to the cost of the railings.

Decorative metal railings line the bridges as part of the Manzanita Avenue Corridor Reconstruction Project. The city’s arts project coordinator, Mary Gardner (inset), has been vague as to the cost of the railings.

Photo by meredith j. cooper inset: cn&r file photo

Get involved:
The Chico Arts Commission meets on the second Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. in Conference Room #1 of the City Council Chamber Building, 421 Main St. Meetings are open to the public. A draft of the commission’s new Public Art Policy Manual will be on the agenda for the Aug. 11 meeting.

It’s fair to say that most Chicoans are under the impression that the city’s Arts Commission is instrumental in making decisions about the public art installed around town.

But is it? And if the commission isn’t involved, who makes the decisions? These are questions members of the local arts community have been asking lately. They’re confused, they say, and are seeking clarity.

No project seems to be more telling of the confusion than the recently completed Manzanita Avenue Corridor Reconstruction Project.

On Jan. 22, 2010, the topic bubbled to the surface when local electrical engineer Lon Glazner posted an entry on his blog (www.norcalblogs.com/commission) regarding the artistic features of east Chico’s Manzanita corridor, which includes roundabouts decorated with cement swirls and artistically designed metal bridge railings.

“I can’t find any description or plan associated with these art treatments in any city documents,” wrote Glazner. “A web search did turn up a blog entry by Glen Rogers, an artist whose studio is currently in Mazatlan, Mexico. … Rogers on her web site states she was commissioned in 2004 by the City of Chico to create a Master Art Plan for the ‘streetscape revitalization for Manzanita Avenue.’ ”

In a blog entry dated April 14, Glazner wondered why the art treatments in the primarily redevelopment-funded Manzanita project, which he believed should have had a 1-percent set-aside for art, seemed to cost more than that 1 percent.

According to Glazner’s math, “[L]ess than $90,000 of this project’s RDA funding should be spent on public art. … My guess is that the total cost of artistic embellishments … is in the $300K range … much higher than the 1% taken from RDA for public art. Additionally, the RDA funds are distributed by the Art Commission who has never looked at this project or its plans.”

Glazner’s blog followed on the heels of a photograph of the Rogers-designed railings in the March 13 issue of the Chico Enterprise-Record, with a caption stating that the city’s art projects coordinator, Mary Gardner, “was unable to provide a cost of the railings.”

To add to the confusion, the annual 2008-09 RDA report on the city’s website lists under “2009-10 Capital Projects Work Plan” a total of $448,675 for “public art.” The Manzanita corridor project is on the accompanying list of “major multiyear projects” that includes the Nitrate Compliance Plan, the widening of Cohasset Road and the Highway 99 Bikeway project.

In a time of economic crisis in which the public is increasingly concerned with city-government expenditures, Glazner’s concerns have a familiar ring.

Several members of the Arts Commission, when asked recently about the Manzanita corridor project, could not say how the public-art portion of the project was approved or funded, and expressed confusion at the public-art process in general and a desire to be more involved. They also expressed frustration with the process of interacting with Gardner.

One commissioner said anonymously, “I would like to request that the city art projects coordinator [Gardner] provide the Arts Commission with a PowerPoint presentation outlining the policies and procedures of the public-art process of approval and funding.”

Lucille Wanee, in her second term on the commission, said: “As an arts commissioner, I am often asked by friends and community members why we spent ‘good money’ on one thing or another. … Then I am asked about art that has been incorporated in the realm of capital-improvement projects. Most of the time I have to say that I only learned about it ‘after the fact.’ It seems as though often we are told about it after the decisions are made, sometimes even after the project is completed—or we were told about it far in advance and never received any updates.

“I am proud that we are a community that values art,” added Wanee, “and hope we can work toward more openness and transparency, where local artists feel valued. I think that’s what our community wants.”

A phone call to Glen Rogers—reached recently in Mississippi, where she was visiting from her home in Mexico—cleared up some of the confusion. Rogers said she collaborated on the Manzanita project with local metal artist/fabricator Jeff Lindsay—who fabricated the railings from Rogers’ design plan—and landscape architect Tom Phelps, who designed the concrete swirls in the roundabouts.

Rogers said that she received $10,000 for her master-art plan for the Manzanita corridor project, “and that was stretched out over years. And I may have gotten $5,000 more over the years.” (Gardner later confirmed that Rogers was paid $15,000 for her work. Gardner also confirmed via e-mail that “the cost of fabricating and installing the railings was approx[imately] $184,000, the cost for three roundabout spiral walls was approx[imately] $127,545.”)

“The reason Mary Gardner knew me,” said Rogers of how she was chosen for the project, “is because … I was invited to Chico to do a seminar on public art [in the early 2000s]. Mary Gardner was [also] a coordinator for a project in Patterson [that I worked on], so she knew my work. I was living in Oakland at the time.” Rogers moved to Mexico in 2006.

When asked to elaborate on the public-art element of the Manzanita corridor project, Gardner deferred to city of Chico Associate Engineer Craig Murray, who she said was the project manager.

Murray distinguished between the Manzanita project, which is a capital project (composed of bridges and roads) that includes an artistic or esthetic element, and public-art projects, which are stand-alone pieces of art.

“For the larger, more complicated capital projects, a project development team (PDT) is developed for project scoping, coordination and design,” offered Murray in an e-mail. “The PDT typically consists of experts in the various disciplines required for the project. For the Manzanita corridor project this included civil engineers, traffic engineers, structural engineers, surveyors, landscape architect and artist, to name a few.”

Rogers, he said, was hired in spring 2003 “based on her special skill set and successful experience working with agencies, municipalities and architects in developing bid-ready documents that incorporated aesthetic treatments within the capital-project process that are not only attractive but [also] constructable.”

While the Arts Commission’s Art in Public Places Program Policy and Procedures Manual states, under the section titled “Capital Improvement Projects Art Treatment Program,” that the Arts Commission “will review the site” of an upcoming capital project and “recommend proposed art treatment … to the City Council for approval,” Murray said that this capital project “did not require nor obtain Arts Commission approval.”

Gardner, in a recent interview in which she was joined by her supervisor, Assistant City Manager John Rucker, and the city’s community development manager, Cris Carroll, stressed that on “aesthetic treatments [for] capital projects” or “design projects” such as the Manzanita corridor, “the art is subservient to the larger project” and therefore in the realm of the city’s Engineering Department and not the Arts Commission.

Artists needed to work on such multimillion-dollar projects are hired from a pre-qualified list compiled one year ago by the Arts Commission, said Gardner. (Rogers is on this list, though her hometown is listed as “San Jose, CA.”)

“The Engineering Department said, ‘We have to work with people who can hit the ground running,’ ” Gardner said of the pre-qualified artists.

“We need a special type of artist who can work well on a team,” added Carroll.

As for the wording of the Arts Commission’s Policy and Procedures Manual, last revised in 1999, Gardner said that “the reality is, when the Arts Commission put this document together, we didn’t have this [the public-art category of ‘aesthetic treatments [for] capital projects’]. As time went along, the process developed for what works for the Engineering Department.

“We are figuring out how to get the Arts Commission more involved [in capital projects],” added Gardner. “We know they are feeling disenfranchised.”

“We’re hearing loud and clear,” said Rucker, “that [the Arts Commission is] not feeling they’re being involved enough … and we’d be happy to have a discussion on how they could be further involved.”

All three were unfamiliar with the 2009-10 Capital Projects Work Plan document referencing the $448,675 for public art.

Carroll pointed out that the 1-percent tax increment set aside for public art, normally at the disposal of the Arts Commission, is “in suspense … indefinitely,” due to the $9.2 million state raid in May on the city’s redevelopment funds.

As for a 1-percent set-aside for art on the Manzanita project, Gardner said, “Well, it’s not really a 1-percent program. Essentially, we include artists on a design project when possible. It’s not a percent-for-art program. … People are very accustomed to this 1 percent … and this is a very different situation.”

Gardner, however, offered that the Arts Commission has “$200,000 saved up for what would be called a ‘signature art piece’… when they are ready to embark on something larger.” Commissioner Wanee, when asked to respond to Gardner’s statement, said, “To the best of my knowledge, the $200,000 that is ‘saved’ is money that has been confiscated by the state and will be returned to us when it is returned from the state. … However, we don’t have that in writing, and who knows?”

Local artist and former Arts Commissioner Gregg Payne, who has been intimately involved in Chico’s public-art scene for many years, offered these words about the public-art process: “The public and the arts community need to do their part, get informed and voice their opinions for democracy and public art to work.”